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Can Sexual Provocation Still Sell?

Can Sexual Provocation Still Sell? (photo)

The promise of boundary-pushing naughtiness doesn't get people to the theater the way it used to.

Barring some epic year-end bombshell, Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” is sure to walk away with the designation of year’s most provocative movie — with its sadomasochistic sex, penis smashing and spontaneous clitorectomy, it rivals Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 cinema scandal “In the Realm of the Senses” in its efforts to shock and offend.

It’s a useful comparison. Over the years, international art cinema has often been inextricably tied to our most prurient desires. In the 1960s, foreign masterpieces were as much about championing auteurs as glimpsing a choice piece of European ass. Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” was marketed with blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg dancing around in Dionysian ecstasy, while Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” and Luis Bunuel’s “Belle De Jour” were literally sold off the naked backsides of Bridget Bardot and Catherine Deneueve. But do such depictions of outré sex still sell challenging foreign cinema today?

As recently as the ’80s and ’90s, “you could sell a lot of tickets if you were selling sex,” says distribution veteran Mark Urman, pointing to Miramax releases like “Sirens” and Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.” “Back then, we were selling sex, scandal and an X rating, cloaked in something that was intellectually high-tone, which made it all the better,” recalls Urman, who worked on the marketing of the films. “But it was naughty and that’s why everyone went. Now, nobody cares.”

“Antichrist”‘s racy subject matter certainly boosted the film’s opening weekend sales, where sold-out houses in New York accounted for a little under half of the film’s total $72,000 box-office gross across six theaters. Downtown, the IFC Center boasted its best Friday ever (some von Trier fans were even turned away from Thursday’s midnight show).

However, other preeminent arthouses across the country showing the film, like the NuArt in Los Angeles, the Music Box in Chicago, Boston’s Kendall Square, San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Washington D.C.’s E Street, mostly under-performed. “We wanted other markets to be higher,” admits IFC Films’ marketing chief Ryan Werner, who’s stewarding the U.S. “Antichrist” release and explains New York numbers usually far surpass other markets. (Full disclosure: This website, of course, shares a parent company with IFC Films.)

But Werner can’t predict how long “Antichrist” will play in theaters (the movie will expand to ten cities this Friday.) In some ways, he likens the opening weekend interest in “Antichrist” to the kind of first-weekend hype and accompanying sales that surround a Hollywood blockbuster — where ticket sales often fall precipitously the following week. He says the controversy “creates interest, but at the same it hurts it,” because “most people don’t want to be challenged when they go to the movies.”

10272009_shortbus.jpg“Provocation is not what it used to be,” agrees Urman, who oversaw the release of several “hot potato” art movies in previous years. He refers to a film like John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” as one that performed decently, but still pulled in half of what he expected. “And that was a film that was celebratory and fun and didn’t punish the viewer with sex — there was no genital mutilation — but we couldn’t get it booked in more than 80 theaters.” Urman cites reasons ranging from prudish exhibitors to changing audience taste. Speaking broadly, he says that after 9/11 moviegoers simply began to abandon challenging material across the board: “People were looking for comfort food.”

That’s not to say sex and controversy can’t stir up interest. Festival screenings of “Antichrist” — where audience members passed out and furious debate was sparked — helped to increase the film’s profile. “It definitely helped,” says Werner. “A typical movie that doesn’t get rave reviews doesn’t get this amount of business.” (Aggregation review site Metacritic gave “Antichrist” a mixed rating of 48.)

Really, it’s solid reviews that remain the most powerful motivator for arthouse audiences, at least according to distributors. Jon Gerrans, co-president of Strand Releasing, which has put out a fair share of racy movies, says, “Quality of content is still the prevalent draw, but quality plus sex is a killer combination.”

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